How often should you eat?

In a recent episode, I debunked the myth that eating more frequently keeps your metabolism revved up. Not only does skipping meals not shut down your metabolism, but there may be some benefits to going a bit longer between meals.

As I explained in that episode, going for four or five hours—or even longer—between meals will not affect your metabolism one whit. In fact, there are some good reasons to go longer than just a few hours between meals.

This article is also available as a podcast.

It takes about three hours for your body to finish digesting a meal. If you eat every two or three hours, as many experts now advise, your body will constantly be in what nutritionists call the “fed state.” This simply means that you are always in the process of digesting food.

If, on the other hand, you don’t eat again, you’ll go into something we call the “post-absorptive” state after about three hours. Several interesting things happen in the post-absorptive state, which continues for another 12 to 18 hours if you don’t eat again.

First, you begin tapping into your body’s stored energy reserves to run your engine. Your hormone levels adjust to shift your body out of fat-storage mode and into fat-burning mode. Hanging out in the post-absorptive state also reduces free-radical damage and inflammation, increases the production of anti-aging hormones, and promotes tissue repair. And, just to reinforce what we talked about last week, your metabolic rate remains unchanged.

But what about your blood sugar?

You’ll often hear people say that eating small, frequent meals helps to keep your blood sugar levels steady. And it does: It keeps your blood sugar steadily high.

Whoever said that your blood sugar levels were supposed to remain constant throughout the day, anyway? They’re not. They are supposed to rise after meals, as food is digested and converted into glucose, and then fall back to baseline as the glucose is taken up by the cells and used for energy or stored for future use.

Having your blood sugar level fall to baseline is not bad for you! In fact, having your blood sugar closer to baseline for more of the day helps to protect you from developing diabetes. Now, of course, it is possible for blood sugar to get too low. This is known as hypoglycemia. A lot of people self-diagnose themselves with this condition, but very few of them actually have it. Diabetics using insulin or folks with a medical condition called reactive hypoglycemia need to be careful about letting their blood sugar get too low.

But for the vast majority of us, managing blood sugar levels is about avoiding the peaks, not the valleys. If you experience headaches, fatigue, and other discomfort whenever you go more than two or three hours without eating, the problem is probably not that your blood sugar has gotten too low, but that it’s been too high.

Eating a lot of sweets, sweetened beverages, white bread, and other refined carbohydrates will cause your blood sugar to go up very high, very quickly. What goes up, must come down and the higher the spike, the more uncomfortable the plunge. The easiest way to make that feeling go away is to eat again. But if you eat more of the same kinds of foods, you’re simply getting back on the same roller coaster. And that roller coaster is on a fast track to type 2 diabetes.

To get off this roller coaster, eat foods that contain less sugar and more fiber, protein, and fat. I’m talking about whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. For pasta, go al dente.  Your blood sugar levels will rise more slowly and gradually, making the decline far less dramatic. And you may find that you don’t need to eat every three hours in order to feel well.

A word about hunger

The biggest problem you are likely to experience is feeling hungry, and this is not as big a problem as many of us have led ourselves to believe. When you are used to always being in the fed state, you tend to panic the minute you notice that your stomach is empty.

In fact, feeling hungry is not a medical emergency. Often, if you simply wait 10 minutes, the feeling will go away. Sometimes simply having a cup of tea or a glass of water is all you’ll need. Chewing gum is another great way to feel less hungry!  Allowing your stomach to be empty for an hour or two is really not that uncomfortable if you allow yourself to get used to the sensation. It’s also the perfect time to exercise. Exercising two or three hours after you eat will allow you to get the most out of your workout and, as a bonus, usually makes hunger pangs go away.

Please understand, I’m not advising you to stop eating or to starve yourself. I’m just saying going several hours without eating is not unhealthy. In fact, it can have some health benefits.

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